When Falun Gong practitioner Cheng Wan left China in 1998 for graduate school, he did so without the suspicion of the Chinese government. The Falun Gong spiritual movement had not yet been outlawed in China, and Wan’s mother had not yet been imprisoned for practicing.
At the time, Wan had been practicing for two years since returning to his hometown of Sha Shi on a semester break from a Beijing university. There he found his mother, Chen Jing Jiang – for years burdened with chronic physical pain and failed treatments – healed, and crediting the spiritual movement for her new-found health.
Wan read the movement’s definitive text, “Zhuan Falun,” by Li Hongzhi, and decided to adopt the movement’s physical exercises and meditations even before finishing the book.
“It told me why I should be a good person in society and school and gave me direction,” he said. It also cured his mild stomach pains, he said.
Because of cases like Wan’s and his mother’s, Wan said, China initially praised the movement, when it became public in 1992 after thousands of years of being passed on in private.
As with other spiritual movements, Falun Gong was outlawed in 1999. Falun Gong members estimate there are tens of millions of practitioners in China alone, although exact numbers are unknown.
“(The government) believed we have some kind of political prize,” said Wan. “But we’re not against the government. We just ask for some freedom.”
In some ways, life in China has been revolutionized in the past few years. U.S. corporations now litter the nation, and on Friday the International Olympic Committee granted Beijing the 2008 Olympic Games. China’s first chance to host the Olympics came amid protest from those who say the bid rewards China for a horrendous human rights record.
After outlawing Falun Gong, which the government considers a cult, police began to detain practitioners for being “subversive” to the Communist Party.
Human rights organizations are unsure of how many have been detained or killed for practicing Falun Gong – though Amnesty International has confirmed 93 deaths and thousands tortured and sentenced to labor camps or mental institutions.
In January, Wan’s mother was sent to a female labor camp 300 miles from Sha Shi, and Wan has had no contact with her since.
Wan has spoken with his father only reluctantly, since his father said the government has taped and played back for him phone conversations – an indication it is watching his family. Thus, he advised Wan not to return to China.
John Nania practices Falun Gong with Wan at the St. Paul Student Center on Friday nights. He said Falun Gong took no overall stance on the Olympics because it claims no political allegiance – although human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch said the group has become politicized in response to crackdowns.
“We’re hoping with the spotlight shining on China, they will improve human rights,” Nania said.
Wan expressed no anger over the selection and said he hoped the games will spur change.
Wan spoke to Falun Gong members in Minneapolis last Thursday about his and his mother’s experiences.